Carter County public schools announced this week that, based on recommendations from Governor Andy Beshear, the first month of school will be done completely online. For families that don’t have computers in their homes, the school will provide them with Chromebooks. The parking lots of each school will also be set up as mobile “hotspots” for internet access.
While it is no fault of the school system, and they are doing everything they can to help those without adequate internet access to participate in the virtual classroom, the Chromebooks and mobile hotspots still fail to address some fundamental issues facing these families.
For one, families without adequate resources to provide computers and internet access to their children also often suffer from other issues related to poverty. They may not have reliable transportation. If they do it may be the car that is needed to get a working parent to their job. If they have another vehicle, they may not be able to afford the gas to drive their children into the school parking lot every day. If it is a single parent home, they may not be able to take their children to the school parking lot to access the internet if they have to be at work during school hours.
These are just a few of the issues that poor families face every day – and while they are not the school system’s fault, and the schools do everything they can to mitigate these issues and help every student succeed, it’s another hurdle that the children of the working poor face regularly that more stable and affluent families do not. The school does have other options for these families, such as NTI packets that parents may choose as an alternative. But worksheets put the burden on students to teach themselves, or on parents to make sure their children are completing them. Even if those are not issues, worksheets are not a fair exchange for the active interaction that students can engage in with teachers either in person or online.
Multiple studies show that poverty can impact the abilities of children to learn. Hungry students, for instance, don’t come to school ready to learn. This is why schools have implemented things like school breakfast programs. Related studies show that education is one of the key elements to children raising themselves out of generational poverty. This new push for beginning the school year online, while it may be necessary to halt the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff, highlight another example of how poor and rural families have the deck stacked against them when it comes to bettering their situation.
On top of this, the internet infrastructure in rural communities – especially in Appalachia where the terrain is just one more obstacle to overcome – is severely lacking compared even to impoverished urban communities. The Kentucky Wired initiative was supposed to help alleviate that problem, but that program has been slow to progress. It also focuses on schools and government buildings as the first to access the high-speed fiber online network.
A spokesperson for the initiative has said the state plan would allow independent businesses to tie into the network to provide access to rural homes, but they would be responsible for running that “last mile” of line. As anyone who has had to suffer spotty satellite internet access can tell you, the return on investment isn’t always high enough for those providers to run those lines for the final miles.
It’s time for the state and/or federal government to step in and make sure that fast, reliable, and affordable internet access is available to every citizen who wants it. Like electric, water and telephone service, internet access needs to be treated as other public utilities and made widely available and affordable. Positive steps have been taken in this direction, but the end result needs to be readily available, reliable, and affordable internet access for all, and we are not there yet.
Until we do have reliable internet access our people are going to continue to fall behind and have fewer opportunities than those who live in areas with better internet access. This situation with our local schools is just the most recent example of how the internet – publicly available since August of 1991 – has become a necessity over the last 29 years.
We need better internet access in eastern Kentucky. Not tomorrow. Now.